Journalist: Tabea von Ow | Photographer: Caran d’Ache and Aurelien Bergot | Magazine: Trust engenders courage – October 2022
She’s the woman at the helm of the Swiss company Caran d’Ache: Carole Hubscher on risk-taking, emotions in the family business and our culture of responding to mistakes, which needs to change.
Ms Hubscher, can you remember the first important decision you made for Caran d’Ache?
Yes. I decided pretty much at the beginning that we should move to a single brand strategy. We had different logos for different product categories. Because I come from a marketing background, it was clear to me that this would make us lose focus.
“Keeping business and emotions separate is almost impossible in a family business.”
How did people react to your decision?
Some people warned me that I couldn’t use the same logo for a collector’s pen, which some people will pay several thousand francs for, as for a coloured pencil. But I was sure that anyone who had already used our coloured pencils or watercolours for drawing and painting at school had developed an emotional attachment to and a great deal of trust in the Caran d’Ache brand. This strategy involved a degree of risk and the decision wasn't easy for me.
Caran d’Ache manufactures drawing and writing instruments. The name is derived from “karandash”, the Russian word for pencil. Founded in Geneva in 1915 as the “Fabrique Genevoise de Crayons”, the company was taken over by the entrepreneur Arnold Schweitzer in 1924 and renamed Caran d’Ache. The company employs around 300 people in Thônex and will move to Bernex, where its new factory is being built, at the end of 2024.
And what did your father say? After all, he was chair of the board of directors for years before you and he used the multi-brand strategy.
He wasn’t convinced at first and tried to dissuade me. But in the end he trusted me. He handed me the keys and I took control.
Standing up to your own father must be particularly difficult ...
In a family business, you always have to find a balance between the business and the emotional ties that bind the family and the business. That’s not always easy.
You are the fourth generation to head the family business. Was it always clear that you would run it one day?
If you run a family business, you naturally want someone from the family to succeed you. But it’s far more important that this person also has the right skills. Succession planning takes time. That was also the case for me. I started my career at Caran d’Ache and have been chair for ten years now. But I did a lot of other things in between – studying and working for other companies in Switzerland and abroad – to gain the necessary experience and earn my place at the helm of Caran d’Ache.
“Every decision comes with an element of risk.”
Did you ever doubt that you were up to the task?
We women have an annoying tendency to constantly question ourselves. But I was lucky to have strong support, especially on the management board, where I could exchange ideas. That's extremely valuable. Because at this level of management, you sometimes feel very alone when you have to make decisions.
Why do you think women often doubt their abilities?
I think it’s to do with social behaviour in education and training. Girls are often taught to be more cautious, while boys tend to be encouraged to take risks. You can already see that in the playground. And it continues later on as well.
Carole Hubscher (55) is Chair of the Management Board and CEO of Caran d’Ache. She took over the chair from her father, Jacques Hubscher, in 2012. She holds a degree from Harvard Business School and graduated from the Geneva Hotel Management School. She is married with three children. She most enjoys spending her free time with her family, for example on city trips, where she is inspired by art and culture.
In what way?
Women who demand something are quickly perceived as bossy, while the same behaviour in men is interpreted as leadership quality. And in this country and Europe in general, women are caught in a kind of “perfectionism trap” where people will be quick to blame them if they make a mistake.
What can we do to change this?
We have to change our culture of responding to mistakes. The English-speaking world, for example, deals with mistakes very differently. They say: “OK, you made a mistake, you failed, but you learned from it.” This is something that women in this country should also take to heart. Leaving your comfort zone and learning from mistakes are part of the development process.
How can we establish this way of thinking in our culture?
One way this is through education. We need to bring up courageous girls and, above all, encourage them. They should be allowed to make mistakes as long as they learn from them. That’s something I try to do with my own children.
How do you go about calculating risks?
I listen to the experts around me. Of course, I’m the one who has to decide in the end – and that always involves a risk. But I involve my team and rely on their judgement.
Does decision-making get easier with time?
I’ve gained a lot of experience over the years, which makes some decisions easier for me today. You get a better understanding of the environment in which you work. That makes it easier.
The decision to move Caran d’Ache from Thônex to Bernex can’t have been an easy one.
After 50 years in the same place, there’s a strong attachment. I thought for a long time about whether we should expand the old site in order to become more efficient and improve our industrial processes. But with the challenges of the future in mind – especially in the area of energy – it became clear to me that we need a modern factory, with new and efficient technologies. This is a great opportunity for us.
“Women always tend to question themselves.”
Did you also consider relocating production abroad?
Maybe that was something my predecessors considered, but not the current generation. It’s a challenge to produce in Switzerland, which has the highest costs. But we’ve been producing here for over 100 years. The commitment to Switzerland as a business location was already a clear strategic decision before I joined the company. It’s about quality, stability and attracting highly qualified staff.
What does Switzerland have going for it, in your opinion?
Our education and training system is very good. Here, we find creative employees who drive innovation in our products and bring the necessary expertise with them. Many of our processes are still highly manual, for example producing leads for our coloured pencils. It’s a bit like cooking: it takes a lot of experience to know where to add the proverbial pinch of salt to make it perfect. That’s something that you can only learn here. Switzerland’s stability is also a great advantage.
“PwC Next Gen & Young Leaders Club”
The network for young executives of family businesses
So perfection in craftsmanship is and will remain a central factor for Caran d’Ache. At the same time, the world is becoming increasingly digital. How are you responding to this development?
Our new production site is an important step towards being at the forefront. But digitalisation of the business started years ago, both in our internal organisation and externally with our online shops and via our social networks.
That must have helped you during the pandemic.
Definitely! Painting supplies were in high demand during the pandemic. Many parents who had to keep their children busy at home in quarantine ordered from us. But adults were at home too and used their time to be creative. At the beginning of the pandemic, we also expanded our range of online art tutorials. These courses were very popular during the pandemic. A lot of people also developed a new passion for painting and drawing.
And what is the current situation?
Our sales are higher than before the pandemic. Customers are coming back to the shops and enjoying trying out the writing and painting instruments.
Study «Generation Töchter»
Carole Hübscher – In the spotlight
The first thing I think of when I hear the word “courage” is …
energy, as well as new opportunity.
For me, the colour of courage is …
When it comes to courage, my role models are …
entrepreneurs in general.
This animal embodies my personal courage the best …
a mother cheetah.
If you want to make courageous decisions, you have to …
break out of your comfort zone and weigh up the risks.